One of the best things about being a rug hooker is telling people you are a “Hooker.” You get a laugh every time. I have been hooking for about 20 years now, having learned the craft in a continuing education class at a local high school. I have knit and sewn my whole life, and have a BFA in painting. Pictoral rug hooking brings my worlds of “art” and “craft” together.
Although I have hooked many rugs for the floor, I enjoy making pictoral pieces for the wall. Changing the context from utility to decorative arts allows viewers to take their time and look at the image at eye level, to get to see the nuances of the craft more closely.
The traditional craft of rug hooking creates rugs by simply pulling loops of yarn or cut strips of fabric through a stiff woven base material such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. You only have to master one stitch: very simple. The backing is stretched over a frame or is hooped to maintain a tight, flat working area. The rug is worked in sections by re-stretching the backing to expose the next working area. The loops are pulled through the backing material using a crochet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage. All loops and strip ends are pulled to the top side to keep the underside free from snags and to allow it to be durable, since rugs are meant to be walked on. It’s the sheer density of the loops that keeps the rug together.
The rug hooking technique can be traced back to Egypt, China, the Vikings, Scotland, England, and Coastal France- basically any place with scraps of cloth and a need for warmth.
Rugs, unlike quilts, can be made from the scrappiest scraps: old woolen clothes, tee shirts, stockings. Even many recyclables deemed too shaggy for quilts can be used. Just cut it and hook it. Even the tiniest lengths can be hooked. The burlap backing was often made of recycled grain sacks.
I make my textile pictures using the same old, functional New England rug hooking technique, using the same traditional materials: hand dyed woolens cut into strips of varying widths, and a stretched burlap backing.
My primitive iconic imagery lends itself naturally to pictoral textiles. Fine details are pared away until the simple imagery represents archetypal ideas. Simplifying the forms also allows the nuances of the hooking craft to stand out. Inherent, random color variations in the hand dyed and plaid woolens, seemingly capricious color changes, along with wildly varying strip widths and abrupt changes in hooking direction, make the surface visually exciting, like expressionistic brushstrokes.
There are more and more “hookers” out there these days. Many re-invent the craft with unusual industrial materials or edgy and political imagery like my fellow Connecticut artist Constance Old. Constance uses only recycled plastics, cash register receipts and man-made materials in her “throwaway society” consciousness-raising hooked wall pieces.
When I show my hooked pictures, many people I meet have stories about grandmothers who did this work or memories of wonderful old rugs from their childhood -- so often something long past. They are surprised and happy to see “traditional” hooking in a modern context. Hooking is not just for Grandma any more.
See www.Leslie Giuliani.com for more about the author of this article. She would like to thank the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism for the Artists Fellowship Grant which has enabled her to continue to explore rug hooking.
It's not what you think: Leslie Giuliani hooks rugs with a contemporary folk feel.